Thursday, July 2, 2015

:: boston cocktail allstars - john gertsen ::

In continuing on in the series of bartenders, past and present, who have helped to shape the Boston cocktail scene, I feel that it would be a serious omission if I left out John Gertsen. In one part for what he has done for Boston and in another part for what he has done for me. I distinctly remember meeting Gertsen in August 2007 at a LUPEC Boston-sponsored Chartreuse event at Green Street in Cambridge. A man dressed up as a Carthusian monk was either introduced to me or started talking to me -- namely, John Gertsen in a costume. I later learned that there was not a costume that John would not don for a cocktail event (see the photo below of him as a Colonial fop for Boston Thirst). John gestured that we should sit down and we continued our conversation partially cloaked to the rest of the world by the robe-hood about cocktails, life, and how veering from what one went to higher education for was not a bad thing. From there, I soon made Tuesdays and Saturdays, John's nights on the No. 9 Park bar, part of my haunts. And shortly thereafter, I met his loyal followers who also flocked to the bar on those nights such as Monica and Tyrone.
Like the other posts, I will cover 5 drinks that span the bars that I knew the Allstar at. However, there are many classic cocktails that I associate with him. First, there is the Sazerac. John's enthusiasm made the ritual of building and serving the regular rye whiskey Sazerac a joy to behold, but he utilized it as a platform to make simple tweaks into new gems as I captured in having my first Gin Sazerac. It also felt special because you could sense the lineage in this drink as he spoke of the bartenders and their bars in New Orleans who made this drink a special one for him. The second is the Tom & Jerry. No, he did not create the Tom & Jerry, nor as Wondrich explains, neither did Jerry Thomas. But Gertsen helped to define the drink as the appropriate beverage to have when it snows in town. And perhaps only when it is snowing. People would later seek out his approval if he did not send it out on social media that it was Tom & Jerry weather. Indeed, No. 9 Park was one of the few bars to have a Tom & Jerry bowl set on display during the winter season. The third was the Knickebein -- that crazy layered pousse-café drink with an unbroken egg yolk in the middle and beaten stiff egg whites on top that is taken in a four step ceremony. No, he never served one to me, but my witnessing him serving it to one of his groupies to see how far he could take things, was enough to have me try it at home. And that transference of enthusiasm for the drink led to me recently being asked to write an article in the upcoming Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails about the drink. With those three classics out of the way, here are 5 drinks or so crafted by John that help define how he helped to shape my view of Boston cocktails, and perhaps how he helped to shape the Boston drinking scene overall.

1. Flight of Heraldry: The Negroni, Contessa, and Patrician
One thing that John was involved in at No. 9 Park was making up cocktail flights. The first I remember was the Flight of Aviation that traced the drink through the decades as different ingredients became less available and as tastes changed. However, one that preceded it, the Negroni-inspired Flight of Heraldry, was one that he had a hand in creating and includes two drinks that are still made around town to this day. Perhaps tack on the Negroni as one of the other classics that John helped to inspire me to love (and I have to include Ben Sandrof in on this for serving me a Negroni made with xanthum gum-infused Campari for a richer mouthfeel). With the Negroni being so hot these days, it is good that John's contributions were captured in Gaz Regan's The Negroni book. And as a show of influence, my Negroni Knickebein appears in that book as well!
2. Helsingor
The Helsingor is a transitional cocktail of sorts. It was created once John opened up Drink, but was based off of a No. 9 Park cocktail the Copenhagen. I cannot recall who crafted the Copenhagen, but unlike No. 9 Park, Drink lacked the necessary Gamel Dansk. Therefore, John generated this Angostura-heavy riff back in 2009 for one of his old No. 9 regulars Tyrone. A half ounce of Angostura Bitters either does or does not seem like a lot of bitters now, but back then, it definitely was. True, the Trinidad Sour was kicking around as well as some classics from the literature. That level of absurdity carried on in drinks like the Mission of Burma, the inverse proportioned Pegu Club riff that John created for a Grand Marnier event. I am also thankful for John (technically, Jeff Grdinich) inviting Andrea and me to have a drink on that Grand Marnier event menu, namely the Lioness (of Brittany).

3. Means of Preservation
Of course, not everything memorable that John created at Drink was over the top, and the Means of Preservation is a fine example. Paul Clarke writing about the Ephemeral Cocktail back in 2009 inspired John to make his own riff. One of the key ingredients in both is celery bitters; however, they were not commercially available in Boston at that time. Luckily, I had been supplying Drink with my celery bitters since 2008 to make up that lack. In thanks, John let me "work" at Drink so I could compete at Tales of the Cocktail in 2009 in a bitters competition (I used the royal "we" a lot in describing on microphone how "we" used those celery bitters at Drink). Technically, I did bus our cocktail and water glasses once the night that he agreed to let me be a barback. And perhaps, I should have pushed back then to have actually get a job as a barback for real...
4. DoublePlusGood
In preparing for a guest shift at Los Angeles' Edison, John created a cross between a Mai Tai and a Pisco Sour by taking the former and adding an egg white and Angostura Bitters as a garnish. John always enjoyed describing how Mai Tai was called that for being the Tahitian translation of "out of this world," and he took that one step further with his 1984 Newspeak name for this riff. He also opted for a white rum to give this drink a purity of color (save for the two Angostura Bitters plus-signs as garnish).

5. Krakatoa
Nothing is as stunning as fire when it comes to garnishes or drink preparation. True, John helped to bring back the Blue Blazer, but I never took to the concept of hot, booze-depleted Scotch. The Krakatoa was a cooler drink that utilized a Fernet-colored Batavia Arrack Old Fashioned to extinguish flaming Green Chartreuse in the glass to generate something akin to a Don't Give Up the Ship or Toronto. John did similarly in expanding the 1895 Star Cocktail into the Super Nova.
Last August saw Boston saying goodbye to John as he left Drink for the West Coast via a Gertstravaganza celebration at the Hawthorne pictured above. Indeed, John also introduced me to Scott Holliday as he returned back from Canada in 2008 right before Scott took over Rendezvous' bar program, so that picture is quite fitting. The drink that Scott presented that night in John's honor was something the two of them created post-shift, late at night, when they were roommates, namely the Negrimlet -- a Negroni-Gimlet mash up. While John is in San Francisco, our paths will surely cross again. I did have the honor two months ago of having him and David Wondrich sitting at my bar at Loyal 9 (and I was working with Loyal Nine bar manager Bryn Tattan that night who John helped to train from barback into a full bartender) before they moved on to a table to have dinner. I think that was the first time I actually served him a drink, and it was an honor to switch sides of the game that night. And perhaps at Tales of the Cocktail in two weeks and at events in the future, I'll have another chance to raise a glass to this Boston Cocktail Allstar. Cheers, Mr. Gertsen!

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